Hemp History

Hemp is an ancient plant used in many cultures throughout time… in fact the earliest records of hemp use and cultivation date back over 10,000 years from the island of Taiwan located off the coast of mainland China, where archaeologists unearthed an ancient village site dating to the Stone Age.

Archaeologists also found scraps of hemp cloth that dates to 8,000 BC in Mesopotamia. Then around 6,000-4,000 BC in ancient China the first evidence of hemp seed and extract used as a food was found. The ancient Chinese made their clothes from woven hemp, and used the sturdy fiber to make shoes. Ancient manuscripts are filled with passages urging people to plant hemp so that they will have clothes.

The mulberry plant was also highly regarded because it was the food for
silkworms that made silk fabric, which was one of China’s most important products. But silk was very expensive and only the very wealthy could afford it. Because of this, hemp material was used for those less fortunate who could not afford silk. For this reason the Chinese called their country the “land of mulberry and hemp.” Of all the cultures where hemp is found, China has the longest and most continuous history of hemp production.

The Chinese Legend of Paper Invention – It’s Hard to Believe!

According to Chinese legend, the paper-making process was invented by a minor court official, Ts’ai Lun, in A.D. 105. Like they say, invention comes from necessity. Back in those days, writing was done on bamboo slips and wooden tablets. Imagine having to carry those bulky tablets around… you would have had to be physically fit to be a writer or very devoted to learning.

The first evolution from the heavy tablets was writing on silk… but it was very expensive. So Ts’ai Lun had an idea. What if he used fiber from hemp and mulberry – a less expensive material? He tried many ways and eventually, most likely through trial and error, he found a way to make a pulp out of crushed hemp fiber and mulberry bark. He put the pulp in a vat of water and when the fibers rose to the top he removed them and placed them in a mold. After drying he had sheets, which could be written on.

You would think people would have been excited about this invention. But this was not the case. In fact, he was jeered out of court when he first presented his “paper”. What he did next was what we call a great marketing campaign today… but in those days, it was more like trickery.

  • He started a rumor that he would use his paper invention to bring back the dead! Then with the help of his friends, he faked his death and was buried (alive) – but here’s the twist. The coffin was rigged… it had a small hole with a bamboo shoot inserted in it so he could breathe while buried.
  • After he was buried for some time, his fellow conspirators announced that if some of the paper the dead man invented was burned, he would rise from the dead and take his place among the living again. Even though people were highly skeptical, they wanted to give the dead man a chance, so they gathered a sizable quantity of paper and set it on fire. When the man’s friends felt enough suspense had been created, they exhumed the coffin and opened it. To the shock and amazement of everyone, Ts’ai Lun sat up and thanked them for their devotion and faith in his invention.
  • Ts’ai Lun became an overnight celebrity. He was appointed an important position in court and his invention was given the recognition it deserved. His fame however, became his demise. Because of being rich and powerful, the squabbles of life took over and he found himself in a power battle between the empress and the emperor’s grandmother. When he was summoned to court, instead of appearing he went home, took a bath, combed his hair, put on his best robes and drank poison.
  • The Chinese kept paper a secret for many centuries, and as intriguing as this story is… Ts’ai Lun may not have been the inventor of paper at all. Fragments of paper containing hemp fiber were discovered in a grave in China that dates back to the first century B.C., which puts the invention of paper long before Ts’ai Lun.
  • Eventually the Japanese learned the secret of paper and years later in the 12th Century A.D. the Arabs learned how to produce paper. From there, paper mills sprouted up all over Europe.

The oldest known Chinese word for hemp is Ma, from Archaic Chuan or Seal Script – 1,200 BC. The character for the Hemp plant basically shows plants drying in a shed or shack.

Stories are told about the Chinese “Hemp Goddess” named “Magu”. Magu’s name combines the Chinese character MA – meaning hemp, with the character GU, a kinship term for woman or goddess, which is

also used in religious titles like Priestess.

Magu was a legendary “immortal; transcendent”, associated with the elixir of life, and a symbolic protector of females in Chinese mythology. There are many stories that describe Magu as a beautiful young woman with long birdlike fingernails.

Over the course of history in China, hemp found its way into m any aspects of Chinese life. It provided clothing and shoes, it gave them material to write on, and it became a symbol of power over evil.

The Chinese may have been the first people to make use of hemp’s fiber, but in India more uses of the plant were first fully appreciated. Indian mythology says that hemp was present with Shiva at the beginning of the world. It is said that the warriors were known to drink “bhang” to calm their nerves before battle. Hemp was cultivated and used to cure a wide range of illnesses, and of course they also used it to make fabric.
By the third millennium BC, Ancient Egyptian texts show a hieroglyph known as the “shemshemet” to depict cannabis. It is likely that cannabis is one of the first plants ever cultivated, along with wheat and other staple grains. The Egyptians used hemp plant fibers for fabric, rope and cordage.
Cannabis is referenced in the ancient Egyptian pyramid medical texts that cited treatment guidelines and instructions on preparing cannabis. Pieces of hemp material were found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, and pollen on the mummy of Ramses II has been identified as cannabis. Hemp was also used in the construction of the pyramids, not only to pull blocks of limestone, but also in quarries, where the dried fiber was pounded into cracks in the rock. Then they wet the fiber and as it swelled, the rock broke.

The Egyptians had the most advanced medical system in the ancient world, which included written medical guidelines. Medical texts from Egypt indicate that the primary use for cannabis was gynecological to assist women during childbirth.

The debate is still out among some archeologists and scholars as to whether cannabis was widely used. But despite that controversy, the cannabis pollen found in mummies, in addition to their written legacy, serves as physical evidence left behind by the Egyptians.

As Egyptian culture gave way to Arab culture, the medical use of cannabis was incorporated in varying forms. Ninth and Tenth Century Islamic medical texts refer to cannabis as “hashish”, “the royal grain” and “shadanaj”. While Shaaria law strictly prohibits the use of intoxicants, hashish made its way through the years and is still common in Muslim countries today. Modern Egyptian universities continue to research the medical uses of this sacred and ancient plant, upholding a long tradition of their culture.

As time went on, the Scythians carried hemp from Asia through Greece and Russia and into Europe. Later the Arabs brought hemp from Africa into Spain and other ports of entry on the Mediterranean Sea. Hemp fiber was widely used in the Roman Empire, much of which they imported from Babylonia.

Although cannabis was not a major crop in early Italy, hemp seed was a common food. Carbonized hemp seeds were found in the ruins of Pompeii, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The Romans helped spread hemp through Europe. The Vikings relied on hemp as rope, sailcloth, caulking, fish line and nets on their daring voyages.

Nature also had a part in spreading the global hemp cultivation. As birds migrated across the world they spread hemp seeds along the way.

The stigma surrounding the hemp plant (cannabis) is truly an aspect of modern history. Weighing a 10,000 year history of use of industrial hemp against an 80 year ban on it raises some interesting questions. Perhaps the ancients knew something we don’t.

Over the last few years, the hemp industry is making a comeback. It was over 70 years ago when hemp was once legal and the government actually promoted and encouraged people to grow it. It was used for many things necessary in the war such as rope, sails, and clothing. When we look back through time… the hemp plant was a staple in many cultures.

Today, we are fighting to gain back the rights to grow the hemp plant. It is a commodity that could provide us with so many products that currently use other precious resources, such as: paper, fabric, plastics, building materials, food source and more. There are actually around 25,000 products that can be made from the hemp plant. Currently, all sources of hemp used in America must be imported from other countries where growing hemp is legal. It’s time to bring it back into American culture.

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